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Feature Story June 2, 2006
 
Horsing Around
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
 
 

There was something nagging me all last weekend at the Central Moscow Hippodrome. While most people associate horse racing with the Triple Crown and fancy hats, the reality is that horse tracks everywhere cater to the sad dregs of society. In Moscow, the dregs are dreggier than most other places. Where else will you find a track filled with beaten-down characters smoking Belomor Kanals and shouting obscenities at the track over 1 ruble bets? Some of the ravaged, red Sea Captain noses were more patchy than broccoli. On those weekends that the track’s not holding a special event — and that’s most weekends — you’d be hard pressed to find a woman in the crowd. Going there is the gambling equivalent of trolling Park Avenue Disco for girls after 3; it’s as low as you can go without leaving central Moscow.

And that’s the odd thing about the Hippodrome: it’s in central Moscow. Somehow, the Hippodrome’s managed to ward off pafosnaya Moscow, and is considered as filthy as train stations. But at least the train stations fulfill an essential role. Common sense says the Hippodrome should have been developed into elitny apartments and a big useless mall by a Luzhkov insider long ago. But it’s hanging on, defying the odds like it has been ever since the classic Stalinist horse race track opened in 1955.

But wait, wasn’t the USSR busy building Communism back then? Opening a horse track in the 50s makes about as little sense as the fact that this 45-hectare lot of prime real estate, inside Moscow’s Third Ring highway, hasn’t been turned into an underground parking lot and biznes center in this freewheeling capitalist era. While connected developers are throwing up new places inside the MKAD on everything from highly-contaminated former industrial sites and abandoned construction sites to cemeteries, this vast and almost empty lot is filled with a mile-long track, horse stables and a lot of nothing.

The stuff bomzhi are made of: another 70 rubles down the drain.

I asked developer Len Readle from Triumph Construction and Development what the land might be worth. "Bloody hell!" he said, shocked at the sheer quantity of land. "Off of Leningradsky, you’re looking $1.2, $1.3 million a hectare, conservatively. But if you developed it, it’d be worth a lot more." He said that off of the MKAD, much farther a field, land’s selling for a million a hectare.

Why was such a prominent chuck of land devoted to a track in the first place? In the Soviet Union, gambling was as illegal as speculation, hording and other odious bourgeois pastimes. Horse racing, with its aristocratic past and hats, should have been all the more suspect. You’d think placing bets on horses would be a quick way to earn a one-way ticket to Kolyma. Yet, the Hippodrome, in its decadent late-Stalin style, covered in frescos, crowned with a grand bronze four-horse chariot and with seating for 10,000, clearly had the unconditional backing of the powers that be.

I asked the Hippodrome’s press secretary Yulia Gavrova to explain the discrepancy. "Maybe the authorities realized that people needed an outlet when they saw people placing bets on which trolley bus would come next," she said. The real reason, she told me, was that even as late as the 50s, America’s rival superpower saw horses as a strategic necessity. Anyone who’s read about the Soviets’ march to Berlin knows that right behind the front line of tanks and Katusha rocket launchers, just about all the Red Army’s supplies were being transported the old fashioned way — horse carts. Even by the 50s, horses weren’t obsolete. Not in the USSR, at least.

So, as a way to maintain its strategic edge, the Communists actually allowed horse racing — and betting — to continue as a way to support horse-breeding kolkhozi. Or so the story goes. The Communists slightly obscured the gambling side of it by introducing a point system of "bali," wherein betters purchased bali and then received tickets that were exchangeable for currency should they win. In fact, this made the tickets even more valuable, because the tickets became a way to legitimize money earned on the black market. The sale of these winning tickets became at least as profitable as winning on the horses.

Not only was betting legal, but the payouts were stunning. Back in the late Brezhnev era, according to a friend’s father who’s been playing the track for ages, you could win up to 6000 rubles on big races. And that was when the average salary in the workers’ paradise was less than 200 rubles. "Back then, you’d find real bolshiye shishki (bigwigs) at the Hippodrome," Gergory told me. While I wouldn’t trust a word from many of the palsied guys I saw at the track, Gergory is a relatively successful businessman who comes to the races recreationally. Unlike most of the drunks hanging out at the track, he didn’t have any reason to look back at the glory days of zero unemployment sentimentally.

In those days, there were ways to cheat the system, probably even more than now. If it’s not worth throwing the races now, back then enough money was riding on the races to incentivize cheating. According to Gergory, the most obvious way to pick a winner was to see if any delegations from the regions were visiting. "If there was a delegation from some Chechen kolkhoz that came to watch their horse race, you knew which horse would place first," he said. "They didn’t want to come all the way to Moscow just to lose."

Back in the 1980s, the bookies were some of Moscow’s highest rollers. The track became probably Moscow’s most famous "azartnyi tsentr," or gambling den, where hustlers would place bets on chess and card games, too. Gergory’s bookie, a former Soviet basketball player Igor, used to upgrade his Lada annually, a privilege most members of the nomenklatura could only dream of. Some of the bookies went on to control many of Moscow’s casinos, but not Igor. Nowadays, he’s not even a shadow of his former self, despite his 300-pound girth. "He’s still driving the same dumpy Skoda he bought used five years ago," Gergory said.

The Hippodrome’s seen better days, too. The boarded-up casino Club Royale is the only hint remaining of its one-time status of gambling center. While Russia-wide gaming revenues are set to outstrip Las Vegas’ this year, Gergory told me that on most days a winner at the Hippodrome is lucky to come away with 100 rubles. "You can’t win," he said. "Not real money, anyways." There are occasionally races with bigger pots, such as the President’s Prize scheduled for mid-July, but the Hippodrome is low-roller heaven. According to the press secretary Gavrova, there were practically riots when the Hippodrome raised the minimum bets from 1 ruble (4 cents) to 10 rubles.

Luckily, the bookies stepped in. Bookies like Igor, who used to take bigger bets than the government would allow, now take bets below the minimum. Yasha’s sidebar explains some strategy for betting the horses, but ever since the minimum was bumped to 10 rubles, playing 70 bets a race became prohibitively expensive for most. Many of these guys couldn’t even afford to spring for a 30 ruble program, and gathered around a public board where the program’s Xeroxed pages were posted. So now the bookies continue to accept 1 ruble bets, and then pay out according to the official payouts. From the look of the bookies I saw — aging, dressed in track suits and stained caps, and pale — they’ve seen better times.

As is often the case with petty criminals, they’re too self-important to believe that they’re totally under the radar. I doubt even the Hippodrome leans on them for kickbacks. After sitting next to a scruffy bookie for several races last Sunday, Yasha approached him to find out if we could place a bet. Even though we’d watched as the same motley crew came up to him and placed long lists of bets with him before every race, he denied being a bookie. "I bet at the kassa just like everyone else!" he claimed nervously, even though he hadn’t left the cheap plastic table all day. He avoided Yasha’s eyes and shuffled away.

The bookie looked like one of the shabbier chess-player pensioners you’ll see near Pushkinskaya, but that’s a step up from most of his clients. They included a one-armed man, an old alcoholic with the shakes who frequently pulled out his 70-ruble bankroll to recount and make sure it was all there, and several unshaven men in polyester pants and black caps that were hoping to score a "5-Pobed" victory, where if you pick the winner in five consecutive races it pays out 1000s to 1. Of course, with a 1 ruble bet, we’re still only talking about winning less than $100. Factor in all the betting combinations it takes to land a winner, and it’s understandable how Gergory said winning 100 rubles is considered a good day.

Last Sunday, the Hippodrome held the Radio Monte Carlo races, which you might have seen advertised on billboards around Moscow. This was a pretty serious race by Moscow standards, with the headlining race offering a prize fund of 300,000 rubles, well over 10,000 bucks. The winning horse got 150,000 rubles. VIP tickets cost a whopping 500 rubles, while the regular tickets were 100 rubles, up from the usual 30 rubles. Gone too were the bottles of vodka and plastic shot glasses from the shashlyk stands. At the Monte Carlo, you could only buy beer.

The crowd was surprisingly large, with normal-looking people, cute girls and even a few foreigners mixed in with the regulars. This was quite a change from Saturday’s races, where the winning horses were lucky to get a 3000-ruble purse and there were maybe 10 women in the crowd of several hundred. The high entry costs kept out some of the riff-raff, and when an interested party let out a string of mat-laden encouragement to a horse, he usually didn’t shout it. On Saturday, we heard things like, "Come on, you mouth-fucked cunt, run, dick, for fuck’s sake!" yelled at the horses to encourage them, with the passion level disproportionate to the amount of money at stake. At the Monte Carlo, the "khuis" and "blyas" were still there, but you had to listen for them.

In the VIP section, there was even a dress-code, with the women required to be in dresses and hats (watch out, Kentucky Derby!) and the men in suits. Even so, the dress-code didn’t hide how run down the Hippodrome is. The super-VIPs were greeted by a pre-set meal, cheap imported wine, and a view of the finish line, but that didn’t hide the fact that the building itself is crumbling, the frescos are peeling, and the "toilets" (many of which are actually just holes in the ground) smell from 50 meters away.

Since there was clearly some money behind the Monte Carlo — all from the Ministry of Agriculture, according to Gavrova — there were both "skachki" (horse races) and "zaezdy" (trotter races). On typical days, there are only zaezdy, which is the most popular type of racing in Russia. The trotters pull chariots and, while Gavrova said these races are popular in the West, too, I’d never heard of them before. The chariots themselves are rickety metal contraptions in which the racer sits less than a meter above the ground and the wheels seem ready to fly off. While they move at an impressive 45 km/hour, they seem a hell of a lot slower than the horse races, which go up to 60 km/hour.

Since all the races feature only local talent, it’s much more interesting to watch the zaezdy, which you’re not likely to see anywhere else. There are two kinds of horse breeds running in the zaezdy: American Standards and Orlov Trotters. The later were bred by Ekaterina the Great favorite Count Orlov, and were the fastest trotting horses in the world for most of the 19th century. They’re the horses that usually pulled troikas. They’re also beautiful animals, thanks to the fact that Orlov would turn even the fastest horses into manti filling if they had spots on their coat. Because of that breeding policy, Orlov trotters tend to be grey.

While Orlov trotters are a fabled Russian horse, they haven’t fared too well under capitalism. For a while, it looked like they might go the way of the dodo. Now there are various government programs to sponsor Orlov trotters, but it’s still much cheaper for horse lovers to buy an American horse than get a trotter from a Russian breeder. Gavrova, who is a biologist by training and a big fan of Orlovs, said there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Following the action at the Hippodrome is damn near impossible, thanks to the size of the track and the fact that the PA system’s announcements of the leading horses are totally unintelligible. It’s only during the final stretch that anyone has any idea which horses have a chance. It’s just as well, because the program has pretty little info about the horses running, anyway. It lists the breed, how many races the horse ran and placed in over its career, and who owns it. Of course, hardcore bettors know the horses’ and jockeys’ histories, but I wonder how much it helps. There’s a reason that it was Igor, not the gamblers, buying late-model Ladas. It certainly doesn’t help that the track takes 38 percent of the winnings, either.

We also visited the Hippodrome during a weekday, when there weren’t any races. This was perhaps even more shocking than the scum you see at the races, because there’s nothing to see. We arrived in mid-afternoon and there were only a few horses trotting around the track. In the back, where the stables hold about 700 horses, it’s hard to believe you’re in just 5 km away from the Kremlin, in Europe’s biggest city. It feels more like a farmyard. However, when Yasha voiced his surprise at the tranquility, Gavrova said he should have seen it 10 years ago. "After the collapse of the USSR, there were roosters, sheep, vegetable gardens, everything," she said. "People needed to eat something!"

Back in the stables, which were very basic brick sheds holding 5-15 horses, we met Tatiana Fetisova, a trainer who had pulled off a coup in Sunday’s races. Her trotter Timer came out of nowhere to place second, shocking the crowd. Anyone who placed a parnyi bet (which predicts the first and second place horses, in any order) on Timer and Sviyaga got a payout of 40 to 1. According to Fetisova, a small, smart woman in her 40s, the other horses got confused when the start was delayed and Timer cruised to victory. The stakes were small enough (with the winning Sviyaga receiving 2900 rubles) that I believed her.

Fetisova is a member of the tribe of enthusiasts particular to the Soviet Union. People like her are a throwback to back before money eclipsed everything else in Moscow, and are always a pleasure to meet. She looks after 7 horses that live in a clean and very modest stable they share with a dog and a cat. Amazingly, the horses’ owners pay just 200 dollars a month to keep a horse there. That includes food, bathing, exercise, the works, all at prices that most renters in Moscow haven’t seen in years.

Furthermore, since the Hippodrome seems to be in the hands of enthusiasts rather than people looking to make money, the horses apparently have a pretty decent life. While race horses in the States get turned into glue the minute they’re too old to run, Gavrova told me here they’re just shipped off to various farms after they retire. While some of them probably do end up as Tatar food, it’s not nearly as ruthless as the American industry, where keeping a horse is far too expensive if the horse isn’t a contender. The hoopla over Barbaro’s injury ignores the fact that the only reason he’s worth the fuss is his owners want to market his sperm. In Moscow, however, economics barely enters into the equation at all.

That’s what allows the Hippodrome to continue existing on such valuable territory. There’s not nearly enough money involved to justify the huge swath of land it takes up, except for the fact that it’s a holdover from the USSR. Even in the States, where some tracks actually bring in serious money, it’s not like you’ll find them in Manhattan. Obviously, the stakes are way too high to credit the building’s "architectural monument" status with saving it from the bulldozers, as Gavrova claimed. There are rumors that Mayor Luzhkov and his wife, billionaire "entrepreneur" Yelena Baturina, have a soft spot for horses, and Putin brought government patronage to a new level by introducing the President’s Prize. The President’s Prize, when held in Moscow, draws leaders from throughout the CIS.

Putin’s also been presented with several horses from foreign leaders, including one from Turkmenbashi and three from Jordanian King Abdullah. According to Fetisova, it’s a good thing Putin didn’t look the latter’s gift in the mouth, because the horses couldn’t run worth a damn. "I can’t blame him, either," she said. "Who’d give away a promising horse?"

But even if there’s political backing keeping the Hippodrome where it is, why couldn’t they keep the track and move the stables out to podmoskovie? It’s one of those Russian riddles that won’t ever make sense. Probably there’re just too many interested parties trying to steal the land for themselves. So it stays in limbo, and those 700 horses, under the krisha of the Agricultural Ministry, enjoy probably the most valuable chunk of undeveloped land in all of Moscow.

Meanwhile, Gavrova says that the Hippodrome is still in desperate need of capital renovations. While there’s been a little money put into it to keep it from collapsing, the building needs serious upgrading if it’s going to keep functioning. If the money isn’t found before Putin’s term expires, they might have to wait quite a while longer. One problem with depending on presidential patronage is that, even in Russia, presidents sometimes change.

On the other hand, the Hippodrome might stand to make out well from the current government backlash against gambling. The less other options there are for Russians to waste their money on, the more likely they’ll waste it betting on horses. And if that’s the case, the Hippodrome might be a dark horse to bet on.

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